Health work in long-term gay, lesbian, and straight couples



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Compared to men, women devote substantially more attention and effort toward enhancing the health of their spouses. Yet, scholars have been unable to explain why this gender gap persists. Women also do more unpaid work in the home than men, and a significant literature explains the origins of this gender gap. In order to better understand why women do more to enhance the health of their spouse, this dissertation maps well-tested theory on unpaid work in the home on the literature on social integration and health to develop the theoretical construct of health work. Health work is defined as the activities and dialogue concerned with enhancing others’ health habits. After developing this theoretical construct, this dissertation turns to a qualitative examination of health work dynamics in 61 straight, gay, and lesbian couples living in the United States (N = 122). Findings reveal two distinct ways that partners work to shape one another’s health habits. Respondents in all couple types describe specialized health work, whereby one partner does health work over the course of the relationship. In straight couples, women perform the bulk of health work and men were the primary recipients of health work. Individuals rely on gendered discourses of difference to explain these unequal health work dynamics. Cooperative health work, whereby both partners perform health work in mutually reinforcing ways, emerges nearly exclusively in gay and lesbian couples. Individuals rely on discourses of similarity to explain why they perform cooperative health work. Findings reveal that health work processes not only depend on gender, but also on the intersection of gender, sexuality, and the gender composition of a couple. Additionally, this dissertation finds that partners not only do health work to promote one another’s healthy habits, but that partners also attempt to promote one another’s unhealthy habits. The implications for the promotion of both healthy and unhealthy habits are discussed.